Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop system has been widely embraced as a prospective magic bullet for America’s ever-worsening infrastructure problems. First proposed by Musk in 2012, the system uses pods to transport passengers or cargo at high speeds, through tubes with almost no air inside. With minimal resistance, the pods could travel at speeds up to 700 miles per hours, avoiding friction by hovering above the floor of the tubes. They would travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes, a trip that currently takes about 6 or more hours depending on traffic.
President Donald Trump has expressed interest in the idea in the past, and his advisors have mentioned Musk and his forward-thinking transportation proposals in discussions of Trump’s proposal to spend one trillion dollars improving the nation’s infrastructure. But how realistic is the hyperloop as a short-term goal to solve infrastructure and transportation problems? What kind of steps would such a project need to go through before getting the approval to move forward? If it does move forward, how far could such a project go in replacing other infrastructure needs?
For one thing, the project may take much longer to become a reality than proponents like Musk might hope for. On Wednesday, Musk tweeted that his company had received what he called “verbal government approval” for an underground hyperloop system between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC a trip would take all of 21 minutes via the hyperloop.
However, Musk’s announcement is misleading. Verbal approval from the federal government means little to nothing for a project like this. Musk acknowledged this, saying to Wired Magazine:
“A verbal yes is obviously not the same as a formal, written yes. It will probably take another four to six months to get formal approval, assuming this receives support from the general public.”
However, even this analysis is optimistic. Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution, explained: “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.”
Musk would need approval from every state, city, and municipality involved in such a project. The hyperloop would go through the centers of densely populated metropolitan areas, adding bureaucratic and logistical hurdles. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary tweeted, “This is news to City Hall,” in reference to Musk’s hyperloop tweet.
It can take years to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles for such a project, especially across state lines. New York and New Jersey have spent about 20 years working towards an agreement on a much-needed additional tunnel under the Hudson River. California is still working on access to land needed for the high-speed rail project it began in 2015. The hyperloop would travel under several rivers and at least six states.
Because of the cost of land, bureaucratic hurdles, and the difficulties in making a brand new technology a reality, it is unclear how far off we are from seeing a functional hyperloop system.
Given these unknowns, and even if the hyperloop was to be realized sooner rather than later, it should not replace sorely-needed spending on America’s infrastructure. Roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and other basic infrastructure were given a D plus rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers, who estimated a 3.6 trillion dollar investment would be necessary to bring everything up to working order by 2020.
During his campaign, Donald Trump proposed 1 trillion dollars in spending on infrastructure. He said such spending would offer a bipartisan solution to the nation’s infrastructure problems while offering a much-needed boost to employment and the economy. Trump has continued to discuss “a great national infrastructure program” during his months in the White House. Yet the plan has been buried under the administration’s other legislative battles over healthcare, budget, the debt ceiling, immigration, and other contentious issues. Details released by the administration have outlined a plan that would use just 200 billion dollars in federal spending to spark another 800 billion in private investment and local governments over ten years. Democrats and centrists have remained skeptical of the more limited approach, while conservatives are still reticent to approve billions of dollars in new federal spending. This has left the plan in a grey area with no apparent way forward.
Yet, despite political gridlock, infrastructure improvements are long overdue, and would be well-received by the American public. There is indeed the potential for bipartisan cooperation, and such an accomplishment would earn Trump an important legislative victory that would prove he could reach across party lines to get things done.
The hyperloop is a great idea with the potential for a bright future. However, the US is sorely in need of substantial improvements in existing infrastructure in the short term, and such a project is no substitute for this – even if it were closer to becoming a reality than it appears to be now. Trump’s administration should not depend on such shortcuts when repairing existing infrastructure could offer a win for an administration with no signature legislative victories, while solving a dire problem that most Americans agree needs to be solved as soon as possible.